During the Iran-Iraq War, the Ayatollah Khomeini imported 500,000 small plastic keys from Taiwan. The trinkets were meant to be inspirational. After Iraq invaded in September 1980, it had quickly become clear that Iran's forces were no match for Saddam Hussein's professional, well-armed military. To compensate for their disadvantage, Khomeini sent Iranian children, some as young as twelve years old, to the front lines. There, they marched in formation across minefields toward the enemy, clearing a path with their bodies. Before every mission, one of the Taiwanese keys would be hung around each child's neck. It was supposed to open the gates to paradise for them.
At one point, however, the earthly gore became a matter of concern. "In the past," wrote the semi-official Iranian daily Ettelaat as the war raged on, "we had child-volunteers: 14-, 15-, and 16-year-olds. They went into the minefields. Their eyes saw nothing. Their ears heard nothing. And then, a few moments later, one saw clouds of dust. When the dust had settled again, there was nothing more to be seen of them. Somewhere, widely scattered in the landscape, there lay scraps of burnt flesh and pieces of bone." Such scenes would henceforth be avoided, Ettelaat assured its readers. "Before entering the minefields, the children [now] wrap themselves in blankets and they roll on the ground, so that their body parts stay together after the explosion of the mines and one can carry them to the graves."
The chief combat tactic employed by the Basiji was the human wave attack, whereby barely armed children and teenagers would move continuously toward the enemy in perfectly straight rows. It did not matter whether they fell to enemy fire or detonated the mines with their bodies: The important thing was that the Basiji continue to move forward over the torn and mutilated remains of their fallen comrades, going to their deaths in wave after wave. Once a path to the Iraqi forces had been opened up, Iranian commanders would send in their more valuable and skilled Revolutionary Guard troops.
This approach produced some undeniable successes. "They come toward our positions in huge hordes with their fists swinging," one Iraqi officer complained in the summer of 1982. "You can shoot down the first wave and then the second. But at some point the corpses are piling up in front of you, and all you want to do is scream and throw away your weapon. Those are human beings, after all!" By the spring of 1983, some 450,000 Basiji had been sent to the front. After three months, those who survived deployment were sent back to their schools or workplaces.
Whether they survived or not was irrelevant. Not even the tactical utility of their sacrifice mattered. Military victories are secondary, Khomeini explained in September 1980. The Basiji must "understand that he is a 'soldier of God' for whom it is not so much the outcome of the conflict as the mere participation in it that provides fulfillment and gratification." Could Khomeini's antipathy for life have had as much effect in the war against Iraq without the Karbala myth? Probably not. With the word "Karbala" on their lips, the Basiji went elatedly into battle.
Thousands of children, brainwashed so that they elatedly rush to death as human bullet and mine fodder. It's a twisted display of barbarity the likes of which I can scarcely imagine.
There are no ground wars on the horizon for Iran in the near future, so the prospect of similar action for the Basiji is scant. But that does not mean Iran has not found new uses for them.
At the end of July 2005, the Basij movement announced plans to increase its membership from ten million to 15 million by 2010. The elite special units are supposed to comprise some 150,000 people by then. Accordingly, the Basiji have received new powers in their function as an unofficial division of the police. What this means in practice became clear in February 2006, when the Basiji attacked the leader of the bus-drivers' union, Massoud Osanlou. They held Osanlou prisoner in his apartment, and they cut off the tip of his tongue in order to convince him to keep quiet. No Basiji needs to fear prosecution for such terrorists tactics before a court of law.
The Basiji's cult of self-destruction would be chilling in any country. In the context of the Iranian nuclear program, however, its obsession with martyrdom amounts to a lit fuse. Nowadays, Basiji are sent not into the desert, but rather into the laboratory. Basij students are encouraged to enroll in technical and scientific disciplines. According to a spokesperson for the Revolutionary Guard, the aim is to use the "technical factor" in order to augment "national security."
What exactly does that mean? Consider that, in December 2001, former Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani explained that "the use of even one nuclear bomb inside Israel will destroy everything." On the other hand, if Israel responded with its own nuclear weapons, it "will only harm the Islamic world. It is not irrational to contemplate such an eventuality." Rafsanjani thus spelled out a macabre cost-benefit analysis. It might not be possible to destroy Israel without suffering retaliation. But, for Islam, the level of damage Israel could inflict is bearable--only 100,000 or so additional martyrs for Islam.
"Only" 100,000--my head is spinning.
Stanley Kurtz says we're in Iraq, not to provide peace and democracy, but to show Iran we're serious. Lindsay Beyerstein dissects the argument in her own way (and if peace and democracy are completely superfluous, why not immediately pull out of Iraq to invade Iran?). But the problem, as I see it, isn't that a show of military force in the region is counterproductive to deterring Iran. The problem is that the level of fanaticism demonstrated in the above article implies that Iran may simply be undeterrable. When 100,000 deaths can be shrugged aside as the costs of martyrdom--I have no idea how to make a tactical response to that sort of mentality.